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Six of the Best
A South Africa vs New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Tasting
© Sue Courtney
April 2002

"What if New Zealand doesn't win?" said Bob Campbell MW when I told him about the New Zealand versus South African sauvignon blanc challenge that was in the planning. "It could quite damaging to our reputation".

"Everyone seems quite keen so far" I stuttered. I was suddenly worried. Were the South African sauvignon blancs as good as the British press were claiming? Could this tasting be detrimental to our most important grape variety? What did Bob know?

Bob thought for a while, then said, "but of course we should win".

Phew. I breathed a sigh of relief. I needed Bob's input into the selection of the six sauvignon blancs to represent New Zealand in this inaugural taste-off.

Angela Lloyd, a South African wine journalist and wine judge had come up with the idea after one of our regular e-mail conversations. She had tasted a Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough and a Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc from the cooler region of Elgin in the southerly Overberg wine growing area of South Africa and commented on their striking similarity.

I wrote back and said how I'd love to taste some of the new wave South African sauvignon blancs. I'd been reading the British press and been hearing nothing but good things about them. "Sounds like New Zealand better watch out!". I kidded.

"Any chance of us organising a swap: you send me 6 different NZ 2001 sauvignons, I send you 6 different SA 2001 sauvignons (also a brilliant year here). We each get together a small panel and taste all 12 blind." replied Angela.

The challenge was set.

We decided that the judges themselves would select the wines.

My first job was to select a judging panel. Fortunately the people I asked to judge this unique tasting were keen to participate. After all, it is not everyday half a dozen top South African sauvignon blancs make their way to this country.

The New Zealand judges were
Michael Cooper Michael Cooper assesses the aroma of one of the wines.

  • Michael Brajkovich MW - winemaker Kumeu River wines;
  • Michael Cooper - New Zealand's leading wine commentator;
  • Sue Courtney - wine writer and editor of wineoftheweek.com
  • Sam Kim - Fine Wine Consultant for Negociants NZ Ltd;
  • Brent Marris - wine maker Wither Hills;
with the liaison person being Neil Courtney, Sue's patient husband.

It was good to have Michael B and Brent on the panel. Both were familiar with South African wines, having visited and judged in the Republic.

Each judge was asked to submit a lit of their top six sauvignon blancs from 2001.

There were some wines that were clear cut as to their inclusion. Wines like Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001 - the Champion Sauvignon Blanc of the Liquorland International Top 100 Wine Competition and the Air New Zealand Wine Awards; and Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand's most famous sauvignon blanc export. Palliser Estate was a firm favourite and Wither Hills was popular. Most said Villa Maria, but which one? There were votes for Selaks, Hunters, Lawsons Dry Hills, Montana, Te Mata and Martinborough Vineyards as well. I needed more help.

So Bob, along with Michelle Richardson of Villa Maria and Graham Watson, a wine judge from Christchurch, assisted with the selection.

I soon had my list for the Six of the Best from New Zealand finalised. And a fine selection of wines there were too. They were -

  • Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001
  • Drylands Sauvignon Blanc 2001
  • Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2001
  • Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001
  • Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001
  • Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2001

All were from Marlborough except for the Palliser Estate, which was from Martinborough.

Now to get the wines into my hot little hands and forward a set to South Africa.

The South African wines arrived in New Zealand without any hassle. Eventually the New Zealand wines made it over there, a little later than planned.

The judges found their way to my place and the tasting was underway.

A line-up of NZ and SA Sauvignon Blanc wines
The line of the New Zealand and South African wines

Neil had earlier wrapped the bottles in newspaper and placed them into a box, then pulled them out at random to determine the tasting order. The wines were poured into glasses in the kitchen and delivered to the tasting room on trays. We were underway, judging the wines using the New Zealand 20-point show system.

It became clear to me by wine seven that the New Zealand and South African sauvignon blancs were indeed strikingly similar. Perhaps the ones with the duller aromas were from South Africa. I idly noted on my judging sheet the country I though each was from but soon all was to be revealed. The biggest surprise was the Steenberg Reserve, a stunning wine that I had thought was from New Zealand for sure.

I had scored five wines with a score of 18.5 - a gold medal ranking. But we needed to rank the wines as well. This was extremely difficult. Tasting and retasting and re-ordering, I finally made a decision. Wine No. 5 was my favourite. This turned out to be the Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay. Michael Brajkovich, Brent and Sam gave a solid 19 points to their favourite, the Saint Clair, while Michael Cooper gave a similarly solid 19 to the Drylands.

The individual scores were totalled and averaged to give the final score and ranking. There was no doubt as to the top four wines or the bottom three wines, however the mid pack drew some varying results.

And the result of the New Zealand tasting was

Rank

Wine

Judge's ranking range

Judge's score range

Ave Score

1

St Clair Wairau Reserve
Marlborough, NZ

1-3

18.5-19

18.8

2

Palliser
Martinborough, NZ

2-6

18-18.5

18.3

3

Villa Maria Clifford Bay
Marlborough, NZ

1-7

18-18.5

18.2

4

Steenberg Reserve
Constantia, SA

3-7

17.5-18.5

18.2

5

Drylands Winemakers Res
Marlborough, NZ

1-10

17-19

17.7

6

Mulderbosch
Stellenbosch, SA

3-10

16-18.5

17.7

7

Cloudy Bay
Marlborough, NZ

2-11

15.5-18.5

17.6

8

Spier Pvt Collection
Stellenbosch, SA

4-12

16-18.5

17.3

9

Neil Ellis
Groenekloof, SA

4-12

15-18

17.2

10

Vergelegen Auction Res
Stellenbosch, SA

7-12

17-18

17.2

11

Wither Hills
Marlborough, NZ

9-11

16.5-18

17.1

12

Villiera Trad. Bush Vine
Paarl, SA

5-12

16.5-17.5

17

The winning wine, the Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001, was indeed clear cut. All tasters rating it of gold medal standard and everyone ranked it amongst their top three.

All tasters favoured the second rated wine, Palliser Estate and placed it in their Top 6.

The New Zealand wines were tops to the New Zealanders' palates, however the Steenberg that had impressed me had impressed the other judges as well, coming in 3rd= on points with the Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay and 4th on ranking. Both are excellent wines and all tasters rated them in their Top 7.

The oak-aged Vergelegen Auction Reserve was marked down for dominating oak character that all the tasters commented upon.

Corkiness was insidious in some of the wines, which reflected in some low scoring and varying scores amongst the remainder. The cork taint was not overpowering. No one mentioned it during the tasting although comments appeared in the notes. One judge (me) asked if anyone else had detected corkiness. The wines appeared to be just dull and flat without obvious TCA and most redeemed themselves on their powerful mouthfilling finish.

After the tasting, when a backup wine for the Wither Hills was opened, the difference between the two bottles was quite clear. This is the kind of problem we have to deal with, with cork closures. Sometimes the way the cork affects a wine can be very difficult to detect but can prevent a youthful wine from showing at its best. The Palliser Estate showed fresh and bright, no doubt to its screwcap - it was the only wine with this closure.

We all agreed it was difficult to determine the wine's origin. With the varying styles of Sauvignon Blanc we see in New Zealand, most (except for the overtly oaked one) could have come from this country although the aromas of several of the South Africans were noticeably duller.

It was an excellent tasting and an excellent opportunity to see how other countries are competing with their style of Sauvignon Blanc.

* * *

The South African Sector of the tasting took place in Stellenbosch on March 7th, a week and a half after the New Zealand tasting. The judges were chosen from the results of a recent poll in Grape magazine. They were
South African Judges The South African judging. From left to right: Angela Lloyd, Michael Fridjhon, Richard Kelley and Tony Mossop

  • Michael Fridjhon - wine commentator and judge
  • Richard Kelley MW - Export Manager, Vinimark
  • Angela Lloyd - journalist and wine judge
  • Tony Mossop - Cape Wine Master, wine writer and judge;
  • Gyles Webb - winemaker, Thelema ;
with the liaison person being Tim James, editor of Grape magazine

The wines were tasted in the same order as they were in New Zealand and it shows in the results that the South African palates preferred in general their own wines, although at least two 2 judges chose New Zealand wines (Saint Clair and Cloudy Bay) as their favourites. The top scoring wine, the Steenberg Reserve, has an impressive record from shows and competitions within its own country.

And the result of the South African tasting was

Rank

Wine

Judge's ranking range

Judge's score range

Ave Score

1

Steenberg Reserve
Constantia, SA

1-9

16.5-18

17.1

2

St Clair Wairau Reserve
Marlborough, NZ

1-7

15.5-17.5

16.6

3

Vergelegen Auction Res
Stellenbosch, SA

2-10

15.5-18

16.6

4

Spier Pvt Collection
Stellenbosch, SA

2-9

15.5-17

16.3

5

Palliser
Martinborough, NZ

3-8

15.5-17

16.3

6

Neil Ellis
Groenekloof, SA

1-9

15-18

16.2

7

Villa Maria Clifford Bay
Marlborough, NZ

4-10

15-17.5

16.1

8

Mulderbosch
Stellenbosch, SA

2-11

14-18

15.9

9

Cloudy Bay
Marlborough, NZ

1-10

14-18.5

15.8

10

Drylands Winemakers Res
Marlborough, NZ

5-12

14-16

15.4

11

Villiera Trad. Bush Vine
Paarl, SA

5-12

15-16

15.2

12

Wither Hills
Marlborough, NZ

3-12

13.5-16.5

15

The South African judges were not as generous as the New Zealand judges in the scores, with only one wine scraping into a silver medal placing overall, although at least one wine (Cloudy Bay) was scored a gold medal rating - the only gold medal rating - by at least one judge. It appears the South Africans had in general a wider range of scores for each wine. Angela Lloyd said that the scoring levels might be affected by national practices. "It is not certain that the South African's generally lower scores for all the wines indicated a lesser appreciation or a higher standard than the Kiwi judges had", she said.

And so to the consolidated ranking.

Place

Wine

NZ

SA

Combined

1

St Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001

18.8

16.6

35.4

2

Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001

18.2

17.1

35.3

3

Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2001

18.3

16.3

34.6

4

Villia Maria Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001

18.2

16.1

34.3

5

Vergelegen Auction Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17.2

16.6

33.8

6

Spier Private Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17.3

16.3

33.6

7

Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17.7

15.9

33.5

8=

Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17.2

16.2

33.4

8=

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17.6

15.8

33.4

10

Drylands Winemakers Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17.7

15.4

33

11

Villiera Traditional Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17

15.2

32.2

12

Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2001

17.1

15

32.1

While New Zealand thankfully came out on top (although only by a whisker) and gained three of the top four placings, it is clear from some of the South African contenders that there is serious competition out there. We really had better watch out. No kidding!

Read Angela Lloyd's excellent report in the April-July 2002 issue of Grape Magazine.. This is available on the Internet at www.grape.org.za and includes a summary of the tasting comments on each wine from all the judges.

Also check out this link for a little on South African sauvignon blanc statistics.

* * * * * * * * * *

My own personal tasting notes follow -

Villa Maria Res Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Richly textured with grassy, savvy character, rich, full length with concentrated fruit. Starting to develop. Full intense finish with bright zingy fruit and a fumé intrigue.
Score: 18.5; Rank 1; Tasted as No.5.

Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Bright aromas with apple, acid and a touch of sweat. Good intensity. Bright SB flavours. Hints of tropical fruits. Nice palate weight with a really bright zesty and intense finish.
Score: 18.5; Rank 2; Tasted as No.2

Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Dullish, green apple nose. Showing development & ripe sauvignon richness. Develops to a lovely intensity and sweetness with apocrine (that sweaty character). Very full on rich style, powerful, long finish.
Score: 18.5; Rank 3; Tasted as No.3

Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Green apple, oily style, dull aroma but intensifying in the palate with apple and herbaceous, savvy characters. Good length.
Score: 18.5; Rank 4; Tasted as No.9

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Fuller style of wine, a little flat at first but fills out well on the palate with a long green apple and zesty gooseberry finish, intense length with good flavour. Sweet pea.
Score: 18.5; Rank 5; Tasted as No.11

Neil Ellis Groenkloof Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Good herbaceous characters, oily texture, slightly astringent, lime and gooseberry, high acid style and seemingly higher alcohol. Good finish with juicy fruit.
Score: 18; Rank 6; Tasted as No.10

Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Bright passionfruit and melon fruit spectrum, pale, nice soft round palate, good weight but a boiled stonefruit character. Good follow through with baked apples. Lemon emerges on slightly sweet green pea finish.
Score: 17.5; Rank 7; Tasted as No.8

Drylands Winemakers Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Sweetish, candied aromas, full rich mouthfilling, sweeter style, nice complexity and lovely zest on full finish.
Score: 17; Rank 8; Tasted as No.6

Vergelegen Auction Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Deeper colour, overpowering oak on nose and in palate. Some wild-like yeast characters emerge. non-typical. Nice brightness with definite sauvignon fruit peeking through oak on finish.
Score: 17; Rank 9; Tasted as No.12

Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Rich candied aroma, dullish palate, baked apple-like characters, astringent. A little flat and disintegrated but fills out on finish with varietal herbaceousness. (subtle corkiness?)
Score: 16.5; Rank 10; Tasted as No.7

Villiera Traditional Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Subdued aroma, oily, lemon and stonefruit style of SB, a little overripe and lacking varietal typicity. Emerging richness with melon.
Score: 16.5; Rank 11; Tasted as No.1

Spier Private Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Lemony aromas, sherbet pear texture. Cardboardy nose, a little dull. Rotten apple, oily character, quite developed. but has some bright fruit characters on a lifted finish. (?corky)
Score: 16; Rank 12; ; Tasted as No.4

© Sue Courtney. April 2002

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